The brand of innocence Japan broadcasts to the rest of the world…or, at times, what Western media considers “wacky” enough to buff out the news…tends to be inspired by a three-year-old child’s nursery room. The Japanese word “kawaii,” often delivered in a rising intonation often reserved for seeing a red panda at the zoo, sums it up well though I think spending several minutes in a Sanrio store works just as well. Nearly everything in this country comes complete with a wide-eyed cartoon mascot, from local police branches to and tourist guides. Men read childish comics on trains and a Disney-centric wedding isn’t a farfetched idea if my local mall’s shelves can be trusted. This hyper-cutesy aesthetic even gets warped into the Lolita-evoking act of AKB48, where a gaggle of (very) young women wear schoolgirl outfits and perform simplistic pop songs while gyrating all about. Some have described Japan as a “country of children” yet that’s a little harsh… but aspects of modern culture here can often feel extremely childish.
Nagoya’s Lullatone offer an alternative take on innocence, one where Hello Kitty doesn’t become a cultural diplomat. The duo of Shawn and Yoshimi Seymour avoid kiddie-sounding music and instead aim at recreating the feeling of being a child, how the world looked when you were little. Most of their songs concern themselves with only the most everyday of occurrences…titles include “Leaves Falling” and “Orange Juice”…and filter them through a youthful lens, which transforms the mundane into the magical. Innocence isn’t so much owning a brightly colored plastic toy record player as much as seeing said item as something deeply wonderful and not “Made In China” future garbage. Apartment buildings seem as big and awe-inducing as mountains, bathtubs become concert halls and snores sound comforting. Childhood isn’t about Pokemon lunchboxes or folders covered in puppies, rather how everything about the world seems so fascinating and new. I could probably just write “imagination” and get the same point across.
Lullatone’s latest mini-album Elevator Music fits comfortably within this wonder-filled worldview. It’s a sorta compliment EP to the duo’s Song That Spin In Circles album released back in 2009. That set of songs focused on objects in movement (“An Old Record On Its Player,” “The Hands Of A Clock,” “The Whole World While You Are Asleep”) as a means to fall asleep, the whole affair billed as a set of “loopable lullabies” meant to get babies to take a nap. As the title hints at, Elevator Music instead takes a look at all the dull and boring stuff one has to deal with while wide awake…maybe it’s a cliche, but elevator music really is one of the most soulless sounds in the world…and tries to make these experiences sound more charming. Song titles include “Walking On The Sidewalk” and “A Lot Of People Cutting Grass On Sunday.” To some degree, it’s Lullatone’s most Lullatone-ish recording yet.
It’s also perhaps the goofiest set of songs they’ve released to date. Not really a surprise given the theme – they set out to make dreamier elevator music, not redefine what “elevator music” should be. Thus, Elevator Music sounds just like that, full of silly elements also found in supermarket jingles and “please hold” phone calls. Elevator Music features a Super Mario Brothers 3-ish version of “Heart And Soul” so corny it ends up being insanely endearing over time. Lullatone, though, take this all seriously so nothing feels like a rush job. Plus these 19 minutes sound distinctly like Lullatone, so charmingly cute but never in a ow-my-teeth-hurt-now way.
Expect few major revelations from the duo here, though you can count on a few little nudges. Like how opener “Sidewalk” ends up being the most twee thing the two have ever recorded, all twinkly noises and horn-powered ooooomphs. Or how “Ah, It Was In The Garage After All” finds Lullatone flirting with classic Motown via big hip-shaking percussion…paired up with a child’s xylophone. The track most seemingly out of place here would be closer “Matteru (Waiting, We’re Waiting),” a strummed number featuring actual lyrics, the only time on Elevator Music. It also prominently includes the real-world sound recordings that were ever-present on Songs That Spin In Circles – on “Matteru” the click-clock of a clock can be heard while Yoshimi imitates that very noise. While thematically it fits in fine…staring at a clock, not a party starter…sonically it seems both out of place amongst Elevator Music’s peppy instrumentals and a welcome breath of something different.
The rest of Elevator Music really does sound sort of like elevator music, though Lullatone have added so much joy to these little compositions you can practically see the grins pinned to their faces. “Whistling In An Office” features actual whistling placed over a skippy soundtrack waiting to score some old Merrie Melodies. “Umbrella” knabs chiming sounds straight out of the produce aisle, but adds a surprising emotional depth via some slightly resigned guitar, the whole thing coming across as a little melancholy despite having pixie dust sprinkled over it. “Cutting Grass” goes for more relaxed territory while “Jazzavator” – well, that one’s easy to figure out.
Musically, Elevator Music is a weird one to write about considering the semi-silly theme and briefness of the whole mini-album. Not to mention, Lullatone are basically giving this away so it’s tough to be all that judgmental. Yet when listened to within the context of the duo’s discography, it seems like a natural progression. Lullatone have always been obsessed by sleep – they coined the term “pajama pop” after all – yet here on Elevator Music they rub the crust from their eyes and tackle the world fully awake. Cubicles become pleasant, weekend chores become therapy and “Polka Dots” seem otherworldly. Many people in modern-day Japan need adorable escapes away from the hum-drum of the day – Lullatone just need their imagination, and that’s innocence captured just right.